Tech POV


Working With John Sanborn

MEANDRES & MEDIA, L’CEUVRE DE JOHN SANBORN” was an exhibition in Paris (2106) and a book about the work of Video and Media artist John Sanborn curated by Stephen Sarrazin. These are my recollections of working with John in the 1980s, as published in the book.

New York City in 1982 was a very different place than it is today. The City hadn’t fully recovered from almost going bankrupt in 1975. Things were still rough around the edges: subway cars were covered in graffiti, Times Square was most certainly not Disneyland and SoHo was more Scorsese’s “After Hours” than shopping mall.

Lower Manhattan “pioneers” were able to get large loft spaces for very little money. Musicians, writers, sculptors, painters, video artists and creative engineers lived and worked in spitting distance of each other. The arrival of MTV, MIDI, CDs, the explosion of cable TV and the club scene (remember Danceteria?) created an enormous demand for visual music. As a result, artists of all disciplines and generations were drawn together in a heady mix of creativity and community.  Also, the City was awash in blow. That was the year I met John.

I had spent my college years at Rensselear Polytechnic Institute getting artists and engineers to collaborate. We built hardware, created video art and generally tried not to kill each other — all with mixed success. Upon graduating I made a beeline for Manhattan and went to work for VCA Teletronics, the first independent post production facility.  My day job was designing machines to electronically edit video but my weekends were spent “testing”  the equipment with video artists on personal projects.  If memory serves, John approached me about working with him and Kit Fitzgerald on a piece they were creating for Adrian Belew called “Big Electric Cat.” That seemed like a logical extension from the work at RPI, and so our partnership began.

Unlike today, getting access to video equipment in the 1980s was a very big deal. If you’ve never known a world where you couldn’t edit cat videos on your iPhone you might have trouble picturing this, but video editing suites required thousands of square feet of floor space and cost millions of dollars to build and operate.  John was willing to spend his weekends working – we did have the keys to all the toys – and I was delighted to have a new collaborator.  Over the course of the next eight years we ended up working on numerous artistic and commercial projects together.

Three things made working with John special: 1) he didn’t struggle making creative decisions. That was especially important because we were layering images in linear editing suites which did not have an “undo” button; 2) although not an engineer he grasped technical concepts very quickly; 3) Most importantly, John understood that you could be serious about your work but still maintain a rollicking sense of humor while working.  I can’t overstate how important that was and still is.

The process we used to create images was based on “discovering” visuals. We would take what were then state-of-the-art post production tools, e.g., analog switchers and digital video effects devices (DVEs) and feed them back into themselves. This digital feedback in an analog signal path produced unpredictable results. When we discovered things we liked we recorded them onto videotape. These recorded images would then be layered on top of each other – often as much as fifty or sixty analog generations down. We created a more detailed explanation of this process for a segment called “The Video Artist” on “Night Flight,” a 1980s TV series on the USA cable network covering downtown Manhattan art and culture. You can view it by clicking the photo of us below.

Our process of improvising, capturing and layering imagery is analogous to jazz. By contrast, the rigid formalism of computer graphics imagery is more like classical music. And we liked jazz. That said, John and I were also fans of the avant garde which led us to our next piece, “ACT III” set to the music of Philip Glass. Glass’ music and John’s energy were a good combination. ACT III managed to transcend the barriers of abstract video art and find widespread acceptance.

I’ll always be grateful to John for our next moment of cosmic synergy. One of my musical heroes was composer Robert Ashley. Unbeknownst to me, a few years earlier John had directed the pilot for “Perfect Lives (Private Parts)” Ashley’s brilliant opera for television. When John asked me if there was any music I’d like to work with for our next project I immediately replied, “Robert Ashley.” “Funny you should say that…”said John. After languishing for several years Britain’s Channel Four had just approved the funding to create all seven episodes with John directing. “Would I like to work on it with him?” he asked. Trick question?? Of all the work we did together ACT III and Prefect Lives are my favorites. And Bob Ashley went from hero to my friend and mentor until he passed away on March 3, 2014. Eternal thanks to John for that.

In addition to commercial projects we went on to collaborate on four more video art pieces: “Renaissance” (1984) for the Computer Museum in Boston, “Video Wallpaper” (1984) a 50 minute ambient background video for a distributor I’ve long since forgotten, “Luminaire” (1985) for Expo ’86 in Vancouver and “Infinite Escher” (1990) an early analog high definition work for Sony. We no longer had to steal weekend time to work on these, although we could only work the night shift. I have fond memories of watching John run around the facility shrieking jokes and doing shticks at 4:00 AM. And, fortunately, most everyone else there at that hour was amused as well.

Things are different today. John moved to Berkley. I’ve stayed in lower Manhattan and watched as artists got displaced by hedge fund kids. Sitting down at our respective Mac workstations we each have more computer power than filled all of Teletroncs (and then some). And I surely don’t miss the two hours I had to spend aligning all of the analog videotape machines and signal processors to get ready for an evening’s work. Much to be said for double clicking and having a project come up just as you left it. But there was an energy that came from working “in the studio” in general and with John specifically that I do miss. Skype just isn’t the same.

John Sanborn and Dean Winkler
Sanborn (right) and Winkler (left) in Edit III at VCA Teletronics, NYC 1984
Winkler Consulting Inc.